A split grand jury decided it would not bring charges against an Eagle Point police officer who fatally shot a mentally ill man in the back after a struggle inside a Carl’s Jr. bathroom.
Officer Daniel Cardenas and his backup CJ Davis were justified in the shooting death of 33-year-old Matthew Thayer Graves because they thought he had a gun, the grand jury decided 5-2.
An officer’s black stun gun that fell to the floor during the struggle showed signs that Graves deployed the nonlethal weapon at the officers at least once, according to Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert.
“At that moment, the thing that they believed was the gun was a Taser, and it deploys,” Heckert said during a press conference Wednesday. “So Officer Cardenas didn’t have his hands on it, and Officer Davis says that he did not pull the trigger. So that only leaves Mr. Graves as the person who pulled the trigger on the Taser.”
The stun gun was deployed into Davis’ hands, according to Heckert, but Cardenas mistook the black, pistol-shaped stun gun for a firearm.
“Unfortunately it was a tragic event that happened,” Heckert said, “but the officers absolutely believed their lives were in danger.”
Officer Davis testified that he communicated that the weapon was a stun gun, but Cardenas testified he believed he heard confirmation of the word “gun” when he unholstered his duty weapon and shot Matthews twice in the back.
“Cardenas stated he believed Matthew Graves would roll over on his side and shoot one or both of them,” Heckert wrote in a media release.
Bodycam footage showed that the time between when Davis first reported the gun to shots being fired was about four seconds. The time between when Cardenas entered the bathroom to shots being fired was roughly a minute and a half, Heckert wrote.
The grand jury heard from a total of 10 witnesses, including officers Davis and Cardenas, a witness who saw the initial contact between Cardenas and Graves, Graves’ father, the investigating officers, crime lab staff, a medical examiner and a use-of-force expert identified as John Black, who retired from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
Black reviewed officers’ training records, police reports and body cam footage and told the grand jury how a spike in adrenaline can impact an officer.
“He also testified how the Taser could be mistaken for a firearm in this type of circumstance,” Heckert wrote.
Michael Graves, Matt Graves’ father, testified that his son had lived with him and his wife for years after a schizophrenia diagnosis that occurred during a 2012 stint in jail on drug charges. Matt Graves had not used drugs since then, but also refused to take medication for his schizophrenia.
“The family had tried to get him to go see a specialist but his son had refused,” Heckert wrote. “He said on Sept. 19, 2018, his son’s demeanor was normal; nothing unusual had happened during the day.”
An internal Eagle Point police investigation showed the officers’ actions were in compliance with all policies and procedures, according to Eagle Point police Chief Darin May.
Eagle Point police officers undergo annual crisis intervention training, according to May.
“As a matter of fact, it’s scheduled for this month for this annual cycle,” May said.
Both officers have undergone counseling as required by the police department’s policies, according to May. Davis, who has been with the department since 2003 and is a senior patrol officer and detective, already has returned to work. Cardenas, who has worked at the department for two years, will return at an unspecified date, May said.
May said that the agency may review future policies and procedures, and “will certainly look into” using a stun gun with a different color or design than the black Axon Taser X26P involved in the altercation.
Axon’s website shows that the pistol-shaped stun gun model also is sold in yellow.
The Sept. 19 incident began when Cardenas, who was patrolling southbound on Highway 62, observed Graves, who was on foot, start to cross the highway in front of him against the light in the crosswalk.
Cardenas pulled a U-turn in his cruiser to talk to him, according to Heckert.“Originally all that Officer Cardenas wanted to do was talk with Mr. Graves about the dangers of crossing Highway 62 against the light,” Heckert said.
When Cardenas tried to talk with Graves, the latter walked away and yelled at the officer, “You are not following me, f--- you.”
Cardenas testified that he followed Graves to the Carl’s Jr. restaurant at 78 W. Linn Road, where Graves immediately went into the bathroom.
When Graves refused to comply with Cardenas’ commands to show his hands, a struggle ensued. Davis arrived as backup. Cardenas used his Taser on Graves, but it had “little effect,” Heckert wrote of Cardenas’ testimony.Graves punched Davis in the face, knocking him to the floor. Cardenas took Graves down. The Taser fell to the floor.
“Officer Davis stated ‘There’s a gun’ and Officer Cardenas asked ‘You have a gun?’ to which Officer Davis stated ‘There’s a gun,’” Heckert wrote of Cardenas’ testimony. “At that time, Officer Cardenas testified he believed Matthew Graves had a gun and was about to shoot Officer Davis. Officer Cardenas observed both of Officer Davis’ hands trapping Matthew Graves’ hands and he saw the butt of a gun. Officer Cardenas then drew his firearm and shot Matthew Graves twice in the back area.”
Deputy State Medical Examiner Dr. James Olson testified the two bullets Cardenas fired entered Graves’ left upper back and right upper back. There were also two Taser dart marks, one on the upper left chest and the other on the left forearm.
The grand jury deliberated for 15 minutes before announcing its decision, Heckert wrote.
Graves had not consumed alcohol or drugs that night, according to toxicology reports, but in earlier news reports Graves’ family members have stated that he struggled with schizophrenia and often talked to himself.
Bodycam footage will be released Thursday. Family members will be given time to view the video privately before its release to the media.
Graves’ sister Laurie Bentson said the family is still reeling from their sudden loss five weeks ago, while Matt Graves was on a walk to get hamburgers at Carl’s Jr.
Bentson’s 18-year-old son, Jeremy, is still living with his grandparents in Eagle Point and helping with the chores that Matt Graves once did for the family.
Laurie Bentson said she understood the grand jury would only look at the less than two minutes of footage in the bathroom in determining whether the shooting was justified, but the bigger issue for her is “all the moments that led up to that interaction.”
“They are leaders in the community, and we trust them,” Bentson said. “What are those choices that led from A to B?”
She wondered aloud whether police could have done something differently.
“Those decisions for me are something that should be reviewed.”
Bentson’s husband, Brian Bentson, who’s known Matt Graves for 25 years, said he wants to see the bodycam video, though he’s not looking forward to hearing the footage. The camera was reportedly knocked to the ground, so the body cam mainly records the sound of Graves’ death.
“It breaks my heart,” Bentson said. “And for everybody in the restaurant that heard it that night.”